Authenticity as an ideal in art might be overrated; lies can be entertaining, posturing can be provocative. Still, in a world crawling with the willfully weird, it's always refreshing to encounter those who are simply weird of will. Chris Weisman is almost certainly one of the latter. His body of work is vast and varied; in the last five years he's released at least twice as many albums, the sounds therein ranging from technicolor psychedelia to gentle folk. His newest album on NNA Tapes, The Holy Life That's Coming, may be his most focused effort to date, the sparse production and hypnotic arrangements weaving the listener into a warm sonic blanket, offering a much-needed relief from the deep freeze most of us are living in right now. I spoke to Chris through email about life in his hometown of Brattleboro, Vermont, his background in jazz improvisation, and letting the moment speak.
AdHoc: Your new record has a much more stripped down, somber feel to it compared to much of your previous output. What brought about this change in your sound?
Chris Weisman: About half of my stuff is like this: keeping with mostly the core arrangements of the songs as they were written for voice and guitar. All my albums have songs like this; sometimes the whole album is like this. I love the White Album, but I love the Kinfauns Tapes even more (the double-tracked voice-and-acoustic home-recording sound that most people call "Elliott Smith"). Everything you add also takes away of course. Especially at the level of counterpoint: you only get to have two outer voices; I am often loathe to interfere with the original chorale.
It is now traditional to market the "sad" "lonely" albums with an attached loss narrative. People these days react very strongly to the surface profile of a recording, but they're even worse about the one-sheet: they eat it like a fucking sacrament. The writer's life is more the stage for our fantasies now. The character is primary; the music is the soundtrack (it's also very good for car commercials). For example: "Backpack People" is an urban fantasy. There's no big park here. Actually, it's a Rorschach test about something else entirely. My current media handle (Quiet Vermont Hermit) is being conflated with my songs.
AdHoc: Do you think that, in a way, living in a small town gives you the opportunity to observe the core arrangement of human life and interaction, free from the white noise of a city like New York?
CW: That's a strange idea. I am picturing that slowly waving fireman at the beginning of Blue Velvet. With a limited cast it's easier to reduce people to archetypes, to parse the underlying energy patterns. I don't think so. I think everywhere is equally complex. In any case, I am not really a student of human relationships. I am a student of music; I pull my lyrics from the air. If I were independently wealthy or had some sweet teaching job I'd live in the city. I love the finer things. That said, if Concord was good enough for Thoreau, Brattleboro is good enough for me. I will slay from far away. Don't forget the Beatles were provincial. Bach was provincial. Mary Ruefle lives in Vermont. Alison Bechdel lives in Vermont.
AdHoc: How do you approach writing lyrics? Do you see them as having an informative function?
CW: My albums cohere because the songs are written and recorded together; the time and temperature breathe through them as a group and glue them. I am a jazz improvisor; I try to let the moment speak. Sometimes I also leave the tracklist in the order the songs were taped in. Beatleboro is like that; Chaos Isn't Single-- the album that comes after The Holy Life That's Coming out on Hidden Temple in May-- is like that. I try to outsource my decisions to a higher hand, to keep my touch light and receptive.
I'm always reading and writing. The lyrics are as important as the music: they are a piece. They talk to each other, comment on each other. I write music without words and words without music: when they come together there's a reason. Are poems informative? Are cut-ups informative? The I Ching? Yes, yes, and yes. Yes my lyrics are informative.
AdHoc: You studied jazz and improvisation in college and actively practice it now, but you also have a large back catalog of what most people would probably call pop music. Do you see a relationship between the two forms, other than the idea of letting the moment speak?
CW: Jazz is the secret weapon of many musicians who are now posh dandies, more and more every year. Ex-Jazz. The norm was to disown it after school and to sort of hide it back in the Indie era; but I think that's changing. Respecting the African American source of our knowledge, maintaining a practice, keeping sharp and limber and loose: it's just the more enlightened choice. I myself drifted away from gigging and sessions years ago now, but I never stopped working on those tunes. The study of that music, all the skills and types of curiosity it empowers... it has given me far more than I have words for. For me: no jazz = no songs. But I started out as a 4-track song guy in high school with my friend Ben, riding on the wings of the Beatles and Syd Barrett; I didn't properly study jazz till college. I went back to songwriting after. The tension between the forms is still there, electric, productive.
AdHoc: It definitely seems like a lot of new bands like to cite Jazz, particularly that of the "free" persuasion, as an influence. What seems to be disappearing is the maintaining a practice, keeping sharp and limber and loose that you spoke of. It seems people forget that Charles Mingus and Sun Ra were extremely master musicians, who spent years studying and practicing jazz in its traditional form.
CW: Free Jazz has been cool in Rock for a long time. I love a lot of that music. I also really love some just straight-up improvised music. I go through long phases of playing that way. There's unbelievably rich deep music across the whole spectrum of that zone. I disagree that people need to ground free playing with training in more traditional forms. There are literally infinite unique paths through the universe of music; I believe it's the job of each person to find their own path intuitively, by following their heart. For me that has included old-fashioned changes-playing, Bach partitas, Early Music on recorders; but for someone else it might be (and is) multiphonics, keypad drumming, and circular breathing. But while my trip might be conservative looking (none of that shit is conservative!), it is a path of appetite, lust.
I don't tour because I don't want to. It sucks for the planet and it sucks for the person. If it's not a calling integral to your process, to your reason for being on earth: skip it. The money is rarely good; usually it is very bad. That's not a machine I want to build and desperately attempt to maintain. I get my delights making the tapes, teaching my students, romping the earth on foot. Lord knows you don't make money recording anymore. I'm not gonna 'grow up' and give in to the corporate synergy game i.e. licensing, sponsorships, etc. (Bill Hicks: "By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing... kill yourself.") My dream is to teach music at the college level. I want a campus to roam, other teachers to talk to, to be nudged up out of poverty: lower middle class is looking pretty good these days...
AdHoc: What exactly is "the holy life that's coming" that the album's name refers to?
CW: I pulled that from an Allen Ginsberg letter to Kerouac-- his wording might've been a little different. Well, like any line, it operates a lot of ways. One way of looking at "title down" writing-- starting with the song title like I did here-- is as an exploration of those ways, how it reflects around inside the body of the composer's world. Her history, her associations, her significant-feeling spontaneous non sequiturs, maybe marginalia, maybe wandering off topic: all these may come into play, may somehow issue from the launch. Or maybe it's the other way round: maybe you picked the title to feel these things. Most literally, The Holy Life That's Coming is death, the afterlife. Another facet might be: shit is gonna get real bad this century-- it's time to get right with God. Materialism failed-- repent. I'm just riffing here; I don't mean to nail anything down. And then when you pick it for the album title there's another level of resonance to consider. I work by feel. For all I know I'm giving aliens directions to Mount Chocorua. That's a little too cute. I can see it as the (twee) pull quote. It's worth it though to think about those mountains. The school I used to teach at in Portsmouth was right around the corner from Betty and Barney Hill's house.
AdHoc: What's next for you?
CW: I made Chaos Isn't Single in the fall; it's coming out as a CD on Hidden Temple in May. OSR recently pressed Monet In The 90s-- my first Brattleboro album, 2008-- to vinyl. Also, the album that precedes it from that same year: Living With Poison, my last Portsmouth album. That's a CD, coming out about now. And then plans to rerelease Beatleboro (2011, originally an OSR cassette) later this year as a, you guessed it, compact disc. I never stopped buying CDs (I don't own a record player) and I'm glad to see them coming back around. The tape thing is tired. OSR, on the other hand, is never tired. I love Zach (Phillips).
Work-wise, I'm just starting to unpack a new tuning I recently made up. I call it "Closer Tuning" because the strings get closer and closer together-- A D F# A B C low to high-- and you can play much closer voicings, nice tight keyboard voicings. It is sick. I taught a student a hymn she sang as a kid the other day, out of a hymnal, just melody and bass voice on guitar; I was almost crying. I want to learn more hymns, write hymns. Haven't been practicing recorder; want to get back to it. Just study, practice, teach, watch movies, read, walk in the snow, and wait for another wave of songs.